Why is The Elements of Style, by Strunk & White, at once so revered and so reviled?
Some 52 years on, America’s favorite “little book” on style has become a source of controversy. It’s a primer–an excellent but extremely elementary book. Part of the negative attention it gets is based on the way some people improperly treat it as if it were scripture.But much of the modern criticism appears to arise from raw, undisguised envy of its widespread influence. Some critics perversely misread the text. One, for example, claims that the book’s advice is somehow contrary to good writing–that it is filled with “misbegotten rules.” He says: “Again and again, Strunk and White recommend the stuffy and unidiomatic, and warn against what sounds effective and natural.” But this condemnation ignores White’s second style suggestion: “Write in a way that comes naturally.” And it overlooks the simple elegance on display throughout the book.The same linguist also argues that “the simplistic don’t-do-this, don’t-write-that instructions offered in the book would not guarantee good writing if they were obeyed.” While that is certainly true–no set of rules can guarantee good writing–it is not a valid criticism of the book. Good writing is more art than science, and the difference between correct writing and good writing wouldn’t fit in a book ten times the size of Strunk & White’s 85-page primer. Besides, the book’s brevity is one of its best features: it covers just the fundamentals–the elements–of style.
The brevity may be responsible for another common criticism–namely that “there’s no acknowledgment that there are different ways of doing things,” as one writer puts it. “It’s written in a way that encourages students to believe the recommendations are rules.” And worse, she goes on, English teachers often teach it that way. But Strunk & White can hardly be blamed for the misguided methods of well-meaning English teachers, who may believe that students need a grounding in style before exploring alternatives. With any craft, it’s good to learn the rules before experimenting with breaking them.
One critic acknowledges that “the reason some of us express what may seem excessive anger” about the book is precisely that we “have to live with the constant praise of the thing.” And so the linguistic malcontents carp on, oblivious that their apparent envy is further proof of why, over a half-century later, a favorite primer continues to garner “constant praise.”
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